Review: A Peculiar Orthodoxy

a peculiar orthodoxy

A Peculiar OrthodoxyJeremy S. Begbie. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Summary: A collection of essays exploring the intersection of theology and the arts.

In recent years there has been an upsurge of conversation relating theology and the arts. One of the leading lights in this conversation is Jeremy S. Begbie, both a trained theologian, and gifted pianist. This work is a collection of essays given as academic presentations, and thus, the reader will encounter some overlap of ideas and themes, but also a rich appreciation of both art and orthodox theology.

Begbie begins with Bach and the subject of beauty. Beauty as one of the transcendentals is often related back to Platonic thought, but Begbie argues for an understanding of beauty in light of the Trinitarian God and then uses Bach’s Goldberg Variations to explore how Bach’s religious beliefs are evident in his music. A companion essay follows dealing with the resistance to an idea of beauty that often reduces to sentimentality, and doesn’t deal with the existence of ugliness, evil, suffering and pain in life. Begbie argues that the Triduum of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter reveals a perspective in which God enters into human suffering fully and works redemptively. This is a beauty that does not hide from or hide evil, but works restoratively.

A fascinating essay follows, “Faithful Feelings,” that explores the connection between music and emotion and suggests that music may concentrate, indeed purify emotion. Likewise in worship, our emotional lives are concentrated and purifies in the worship of the Triune God, and that the use of music in worship ought to be shaped by a congruency between music, and the theological truth being expressed.

Both the fourth and seventh essays address music and natural theology using the work of David Brown who has written extensively on classical music and belief. Begbie would contend for the specificity of orthodoxy in these discussions rather than the more inclusive theism of Brown. Begbie argues that our thinking about the arts must be shaped by a trinitarian, indeed Christ-centered understanding.

Between these essays are two focused on particular works, one of music, one written. The musical work is Edward Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, in which Begbie explore the ambivalence in John Henry Newman’s portrayal of purgatory in the words, carried over into the musical setting of these by Elgar–a movement between confidence and anxiety. This is followed by an analysis of George Herbert’s poem, “Ephes. 4.30”, and the link Herbert portrays here between the arts and the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps the essay I found most fascinating was the eighth, exploring the ideas of music, space, and freedom. He proposes that often we have difficulties with questions of the one and the many, or the intersection of divine and human freedom because of perceiving these in terms of either visual or material space. He observes that music opens up another way of conceiving of these in which multiple tones may occupy the same aural space simultaneously, with none being cancelled out, and if anything, producing a richer and more interesting sound than a single tone, whether harmonious or dissonant.

The collection concludes with Begbie’s thoughts on the contribution of Reformed theology to the arts. His discussion of Reformed perspectives on “beauty” and “sacrament” help sharpen the creature, Creator distinction, and clarify the fuzziness with which these ideas are often thrown around in art and theology discussions. He addresses the Reformed commitment to the word as both significant in God’s self-communication, and yet also complemented by other media that communicate realities for which words alone are inadequate.

Reflecting Begbie’s musical training, the essays tend to focus more on musical than other forms of art. As a choral singer and lay theologian, I did not mind this. His thoughts about beauty and sentiment reminded me of singing the second movement of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms in which the pastoral beauty of Psalm 23 is juxtaposed with Psalm 2 and the dissonant raging of the nations against God. The evocative power of music and the alignment of music and words to express truth in worship was powerfully apparent when we performed Ola Gjeilo’s Dark Night of the Soul that seems to capture the stillness of the soul facing the dark, and the wonder of the sheer grace of God that one finds in this setting of St. John of the Cross’s meditation. There is the wonder (when it happens) of many voices singing different parts coming together as a single entity–where the singing of individuals didn’t cancel out each other but create something more than our separate voices.

Begbie’s essays made me reflect on these experiences and gave theological content to them. The essays are written at an academic level, for academic conferences, but reward careful reading with insight. This is a great service for artists, who seek not merely technical proficiency, but to write, or sing, or play, or dance, or act, or paint with an authenticity that reflects our deepest loves, and for the Christian, the connection of our work with the Creator’s story.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own

Review: The Gospel in Dorothy Sayers

Sayers

The Gospel in Dorothy L. SayersDorothy L. Sayers with an Appreciation by C. S. Lewis, edited by Carole Vanderhoof. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An anthology of Sayers’ work organized by theological topics, drawing on her detective fiction, plays, and essays.

This work is the latest installment in Plough Publishing’s The Gospel in Great Writers series, and it is a gem. Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford. Her experience in an ad agency became a resource for a series of Lord Peter Wimsey (and Harriet Vane) detective mysteries. As a committed Christian, and friend of the Inklings, she was called upon by the BBC to speak and write about the Christian faith. She published several plays that brought the gospel accounts to life. She was an essayist, and her extended essay on The Mind of the Maker, simultaneously served as a work of Christian aesthetics, and a reflection on the Trinity. Many consider her translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (Paradiso completed posthumously by Barbara Reynolds) to be one of the best.

In this anthology, we have material from many of her works, that introduces the reader both to the different facets of her writing and the deep theological insight to be found. The material is organized into twenty chapters, each on a particular them, and combining either her fiction or plays with essay material on the same themes. Themes range from Conscience to Covetousness to Despair and Hope to Work and finally Time and Eternity.

What struck me afresh in reading this collection was how delightfully frank and able to cut through pretense Dorothy could be–the counterpart of Harriet Vane in her detective stories.

In writing about Judgement, she notes:

“It is the inevitable consequence of man’s attempt to regulate life and society on a system that runs counter to the facts of his own nature.”

In her essay, The Dogma is the Drama, she concludes:

“Let us, in Heaven’s name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slip-shod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious–others will pass into the Kingdom of Heaven before them.”

In her play The Man Who Would Be King, she uses informal language to describe the crucifixion of Jesus. The Bishop of Winchester protested this. Here is Dorothy’s reply:

“I’ve made all the alterations required so far, but now I’m entering a formal protest, which I have tried to make a mild one, without threatenings and slaughters. But if the contemporary world is not much moved by the execution of God it is partly because pious phrases and reverent language have made it a more dignified crime than it was. It was a dirty piece of work, tell the Bishop.”

In her essay Why Work?, she makes this trenchant observation:

“How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?”

This work is rich in such observations and often the essay excerpts are a good reflection of the key ideas in those essays. If there is any flaw, the excerpts from the detective fiction do not sufficiently reflect these works as a whole, even if they are connected thematically to the other pieces in the chapter. Hopefully, something of the character of Lord Peter Wimsey shows through, which develops over the course of Sayers fiction. The only remedy for this is that you need to read the works in their entirety, often available in inexpensive print or electronic editions.

A bonus to this volume comes in the form of “A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers” by C.S. Lewis, written following her death. I think she would have most appreciated this comment:

“There is in reality no cleavage between the detective stories and her other works. In them, as in it, she is first and foremost the craftsman, the professional. She always saw herself as one who had learned a trade, and respects it, and demands respect for it from others.”

For those who only have heard of Dorothy L. Sayers, this volume is a wonderful introduction to her broad range of writings, and her acute thinking about theology and art. For those who have read her works, it is a wonderful review that serves to connect the dots between her different genres of work. For all of us, this work gives us a chance to think along with one of the great theological minds of the twentieth century.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Cosmology in Theological Perspective

Cosmology in theological Perspective

Cosmology in Theological Perspective, Olli-Pekka Vainio. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Summary: Explores the place and significance of human beings in the cosmos, how this has been thought of through history, and how Christian theology might address contemporary questions raised about our place, the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, the size of the cosmos, drawing upon the approach of C.S. Lewis.

Anyone who has gazed up at the night sky, ancient or modern, has likely been filled with a sense of wonder, a sense of the vastness of the cosmos, and wondered about our place, and how we could possibly think ourselves of any significance before such vastness. Modern scientific discoveries of millions of galaxies, and the proposal of our universe being but one of many multiverses only multiplies the vastness. That leaves all human beings with many philosophical questions, and Christians with particular questions of how they make sense of the cosmos, the magnitude of it, and the possibilities of other life forms, and where God is in all this.

Olli-Pekka Vainio, who is working with NASA on a project on astrobiology, has thought deeply about cosmology and matters of faith and this book, drawing on the approach of C. S. Lewis. He writes of Lewis:

“In his essays, Lewis offered reasoned commentaries on our place in the cosmos that drew from the ancient Christian tradition, encountering head-on the contemporary challenges, which he often showed to be based on misunderstandings or superficial knowledge of history. He resisted the scientistic worldview as “all fact and no meaning,” that is to say, a worldview that tries to be too secure and is thereby paradoxically vacated of those things that really matter to us. By mixing elements from the contemporary and ancient cosmologies, he wished to underline the meaning that was lost, as “pure facts” had taken over the collective imagination. In a way, his science fiction was a project that tried to re-enchant the world after the disenchantment brought by scientism and crude materialism.”

He describes this approach as bringing together three elements: an understanding of history, a coherence of knowledge, and intellectual virtue. Attempts at cosmology must be understood in historical context. Coherence of knowledge for the Christian consists in the canonical witness, the ecumenical tradition, and the ecumenical consensus. Intellectual virtue “includes values like honesty, open-mindedness, critical thinking, courage, and wisdom” without which we end up “in either relativism or dogmatism.”

With this methodology in mind he begins by surveying ancient cosmologies including the Old Testament and those of Plato and Aristotle which influence the early church. He then turns to early Christian thinking, particularly that of Basil the Great and Saint Augustine, considering the philosophical and hermeneutical tools they used. He moves forward to debates surrounding the work of Galileo, Newton, and Darwin and develops observations on how to think, and not to think, in relating theology and scientific facts.

After these first three introductory chapters, he turns to contemporary questions. Chapter 4 considers the possibilities of multiple habitable planets and multiverses and how this might connect to Christian theism and proposes the interesting idea that a good Creator might create good things in abundance, or plenitude. Chapter 5 considers different understandings of the imago dei, and how that might be applied to alien life forms, artificial intelligences, and whether animals might in any sense share in the imago dei. Chapter 6 explores two possibilities: one that we are alone in the universe and two that there are other “alien” life forms. Vainio shows how Christian theism might accommodate either of these possibilities. Having considered the vast cosmos, chapter 7 asks why God did not create a human-sized cosmos and why there is so much empty space. Chapters 8 and 9 explore a number of questions about God–God’s relation to such a vast creation and where God may be found, and the question of whether the Incarnation of Christ was a unique event that might apply for other worlds, or if Christ entered other worlds in other ways.

His concluding chapter returns to C. S. Lewis, and explores how Lewis related reason and imagination in formulating his ideas about cosmology, and how this approach might be helpful in our own day. Lewis did not see these in conflict, leading to extremes either of reducing things to “all facts and no meaning” or that faith is believing what we know is not true. Rather, the cosmic significance of our faith nurtures our desire to understand the cosmos more fully, and good scientific work only deepens our wonder and awe.

The value of this work is not to enunciate inflexible dogma concerning matters of cosmology but rather to explore the questions at the boundaries of our knowledge both of science and theology and to suggest that Christian theism has the resources to address various possibilities and coherent and imaginative responses to the questions we might ask. Vainio offers us careful theological and philosophical reasoning throughout (and an extensive bibliography), that identifies the different possibilities and their strengths and weaknesses of various proposals. I appreciate the combination of careful scholarship and epistemic humility in this work that creates a space for fertile discussions between scientists and theologians working together to make sense of the cosmos.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Middle Knowledge

middle knowledge

Middle KnowledgeJohn D. Laing. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2018.

Summary: An exposition and defense of the doctrine of middle knowledge, also known as Molinism, and arguments for why this best addresses other theological issues.

God’s sovereignty and human freedom. Somehow both logic and experience witness to the truth of both and yet how the two may be understood together has been one of the toughest questions facing theologians and Christian apologists. A truly sovereign God has both the knowledge, indeed foreknowledge, and power to accomplish God’s will. If this is so, in what sense can humans be said to be free? On the other hand, humans often act in ways contrary to God’s will, sometimes in horribly evil ways that inflict great suffering on others. If God has the power to stop this, why doesn’t God? How can we say God is both good, and powerful.

One of the ways some theologians have responded to this question is to advance the idea of “middle knowledge.” The name comes from the idea that this is knowledge that is in the middle of, or between God’s natural and free knowledge. God’s natural knowledge is both necessary and independent of God’s free will, that is what God knows by his nature. God’s free knowledge has to do with his choices in creating and is contingent and dependent upon God’s free will. Middle knowledge is between these two in that it is both contingent, having to do with what God would do if various states would obtain, but also independent of God’s free will in being “pre-volitional.” What this means is that God is able to pre-know the various counterfactuals of human freedom and choose to act in creation in ways that effect his will through the actions of creatures who act freely.

This work by John D. Laing unpacks this theological approach, also called Molinism after Luis de Molina, the Jesuit theologian who first propounded these ideas, and defends it against both Calvinist and Arminian objections (which he often associates with Open Theism, an association that some may challenge). He begins with introducing different models of providence (process theology, open theism, Calvinism, theological fatalism, and middle knowlege) and the assumptions these make about God’s omnipotence and omniscience and about human freedom. He then explicates the doctrine of middle knowledge and the ideas of counterfactuals and probable worlds so critical to this approach.

He then addresses three problems that are raised with the opponents, the conditional excluded middle problem, that Molinism leads to determinism, and what Laing believes the key objection, which is the grounding objection–that there is no ground or guarantee of the truth of counterfactuals of freedom in either God or the person. In a separate chapter he also deals with the circularity objection.

Following this, Laing applies the doctrine of middle knowledge to our understanding of other Christian doctrines: divine foreknowledge and creaturely free will, predestination and salvation, including discussions of atonement and the relationship of regeneration and faith, the problem of evil, inerrancy and inspiration (particularly as this bears on the idea of verbal plenary inspiration and the freedom of the writers of scripture), and questions of science and theology including questions about God’s involvement in physical processes and how an intelligent designer might be at work through mutations and how one might account for creaturely flaws. What Laing seeks to do in each chapter is to show how middle knowledge is the best construct providing explanations of the ways of God in the life of his creatures.

Two final chapters consider the biblical support for middle knowledge over and against Open Theism and Calvinism, and the ways middle knowledge provides existentially satisfying answers to a number of aspects of Christian living: unfulfilled prophecy, petitionary prayer, evangelism, discipleship, having a God worthy of worship, dealing with end of life issues, and the end of all things.

Laing, who also wrote the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Middle Knowledge, is one of the leading proponents of this theological approach. He engages carefully with critics, notably Open Theist William Hasker. He both answers objections and advances arguments for the explanatory power of the Molinist approach, while being honest about places, like the problem of the Holocaust, where all explanations struggle. This may be one of the best single author works on Molinism, or middle knowledge apart from the writings of Molina himself. Laing does careful philosophical work in this book, so be prepared for some heavy lifting in understanding counterfactuals, possible worlds, and the like.

I’m not sure at the end of the day whether I am convinced. I’m always a bit suspicious that explanations that reconcile God’s sovereignty and human freedom give away too much of one or the other or both. Perhaps I’m a bit more comfortable leaving the apparent contradiction between these two unexplained and unreconciled. But Laing has given me a good deal to think about, particularly in his discussions of inerrancy and inspiration, and his discussion of science. I certainly understand the idea of middle knowledge and the claims of its proponents far better because of this work. Definitely worth digging into if you care about questions of human freedom and divine sovereignty.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Theologies of the American Revivalists

theologies of the american revivalists

Theologies of the American Revivalists, Robert W. Caldwell III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A study, not so much of the history, as the theologies underlying the different revival movements in America from 1740 to 1840.

There have been various studies of the histories of particular revival movements in American religious history. What Robert W. Caldwell offers in this work is a comparative study of the theologies of the different revivalists. Undergirding the preaching and methodologies of these revivalists lay considerable thought about the theology of the human will and the sovereignty of God, on how widely the salvation of Christ extended, on the length of the conversion process and a tension between systematic theology and plain reading of scripture.

In seven chapters, Caldwell outlines the theologies of various key figures representing different schools of thought, or religious bodies. These include:

  • Moderate evangelical revival theology. This stream of Puritan Calvinism included George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, and notably, Jonathan Edwards. Preaching focused on the law, bringing people under conviction of sin, pursuing “means of grace” as one sought conversion, and finally the consolation of assurance. This process was often emotionally intense and protracted.
  • Free grace revival theology. Andrew Croswell and other radical evangelicals rejected the use of “means of grace” and lengthy conversion processes. They emphasized responses of faith to the Christ who loves, and whose salvation was for the world, by “right.” Conversions were intense, certain, leaving no room for doubt, and quick.
  • Edwardsean Calvinist revival theology. Successors of Jonathan Edwards focused on Edwards idea that people have a natural ability to embrace the gospel, even if morally disinclined to do so. This had ramifications for the understanding of original sin, atonement, and, justification. Conversions continued to be lengthy events, culminating in a “disinterested” spirituality that accepted and even could worship God for his just judgment of oneself as a sinner, leading to the apprehension of God’s grace.
  • Methodist Arminian theology emphasized the love of God, the offer of salvation to all, and the freedom of the will to believe. Conversions were both emotional events and quick, with teaching that encouraged progress to Christian perfection.
  • Early American Baptists. They did not have a single revival theology but different leaders adopted one of the above approaches.
  • Taylorism, or New Haven theology. Nathaniel William Taylor further emphasized both the sinners ability to repent, and the ways in which the means of grace might eradicate selfishness in the sinner even prior to regeneration.
  • Charles Finney’s revival theology. Finney built on Taylor, emphasizing the sinner’s ability to respond to the command to repent and elaborating the means of grace systematically in what became called the “new measures.” Finney asserted that three processes were at work in the conversion process: the work of the Spirit, the work of the minister, and the work of the convert.

Caldwell also discusses two critical responses to these revivalist theologies. The first was that of the Princeton theologians Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge, who believed these revival theologies deviated from classic Calvinism in the direction of Pelagianism. They emphasized the quieter means of the influence of the Christian family. The second was the restoration movement led by Stone and Campbell that eschewed theological systems for the plain teaching of the Bible and the actions of belief, repentance, and baptism affirmed in scripture as resulting in regeneration.

I thought Caldwell’s exposition quite clear as to each of the theologies coupled the key figures, their ideas, and the theological implications of those ideas. Each chapter provides a summary of salient points that allows for good review of the chapter. I wondered about the focus on the conversion theologies associated with the revivalists. While this was a significant aspect of revivals, equally significant was the awakening of those who had already believed to spiritual vitality. Apart from the focus on Wesleyan perfection, this aspect was not addressed. Richard Lovelace’s classic Dynamics of Spiritual Life gives a much fuller account of the renewal of the church in revival.

I appreciated Caldwell’s closing comments on the importance of revival theology in the church today:

“A robust revival theology, one that intimately unites head and heart, Scripture, proclamation, and life, would certainly help galvanize preaching, capture the religious imagination of the lost, and aid in imparting a theological vision that draws sinners to life and raises up God-glorifying disciples” (p. 229).

Caldwell’s work offers a rich account of how those who have gone before us have conceived of these things, as well as pointing us to primary sources for further study. He helps us see that, beyond the emotion and the changed lives of the successive waves of revivals, there were prayerful and thoughtful human agents whose understanding of the ways of God in salvation shaped and energized their preaching and pastoral ministry.

Review: Conformed to the Image of His Son

Conformed to the Image of His Son

Conformed to the Image of His Son, Haley Goranson Jacob (Foreword by N. T. Wright). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: An in-depth exploration of the meaning of Romans 8:29b-30, arguing that conformity to the image of the His Son has to do with our participation in the Son’s rule over creation, which is our glorification.

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Romans 8:29-30, English Standard Version

Generations of believers have thrilled to the language of this passage in Romans 8 and its description of the glorious destiny of believers to be conformed to the image of Christ the Son. But what does that all mean? This was the question Haley Goranson Jacob asked, and the answers she found in commentators, when they did address the language of “conformed to the image of his Son” and “glorified,” was all over the map. That question became Jacob’s dissertation study, and subsequently this book.

Jacob contends that instead of some form of spiritual, moral, physical or sacrificial conformity or a reference to a shared radiance with Christ’s glory, this verse points to our participation in the exalted calling of Christ as the last Adam and glorious king to rule with him over the creation as his vicegerents. And she argues that this is what it means for us to be glorified–to share in the Son’s glorious rule over creation.

Jacob makes a careful case for her thesis. She begins by a study of the background of the use of cognates for “glory” in the Septuagint and Apocalyptic literature, applying semiotic theory, and concludes that while there are varied usages, the most common, whether applied to humans or God is not radiance or splendor, but rather on exalted status or honor. She turns to Romans, noting echoes of Genesis 1:26-27 and Psalm 8, in the glory of the Son, the lost glory of humanity’s dominion over creation, and its restoration through the work of Christ. To strengthen the link between Christ the Son and humanity, she looks at the language of participation in Paul’s writing and contends that it is participation in the vocation of Christ, both in suffering and in exaltation over all creation.

Having laid this groundwork, she turns to Romans 8:29b-30. First she looks at the language of Sonship, and the echoes of the promised Davidic King and the last Adam. He is the firstborn, the first raised from the dead of a large family who rules over the creation he has redeemed. Believers participate as adopted sons in this rule and share in his glory–are glorified. One of the distinctives in Jacob’s argument is that she argues for the truth of this in the present and that we already participate in the Son’s work of redeeming a groaning creation, that this is the purpose Paul speaks of in Romans 8:28, that we participate in the working for good of all things.

The prospective reader should be warned that this is scholarly work, the turning of a doctoral thesis into a book, and that there is extensive use of Greek, and some Hebrew in the text. Nevertheless, Jacob’s writing is clear and her argument is set forth step by step for the reader to follow. Her intent is not mere scholarship, but scholarship in service to the church and the edification of believers.

Jacob’s point is not to deny the reality of moral transformation in Christ but to set it in the context of a larger vocation–to participate with the family of the redeemed in the rule of Christ over all creation, both now and in the new heaven and earth. This work challenges us to lift our eyes from our own spiritual progress, to the exalted Son, and the work he calls us to join him in. This is a calling to become who we were created, and then redeemed to be–image bearers who with mercy and love, care for the very good creation. The implication of this understanding extends meaning to all of our work, and has implications for the groaning creation in environmental crisis. To realize that all this comes through the foresight and wisdom of the exalted Father ought swell our hearts with renewed love and deepened affection toward the Father, Son, and Spirit whom we worship with wonder at the incredibly rich life we’ve been called to share.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal

evangelical sacramental pentecostal

Evangelical, Sacramental, and PentecostalGordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: An argument for why the church at its best ought to embrace an emphasis on scripture, on baptism and the Lord’s table, and on the empowering work of the Spirit.

Don’t you hate it when a set of choices are presented to you as mutually exclusive options, when all are good and possible together? For example, apple pie or ice cream, or more seriously, being pro-life or pro-creation care. Gordon Smith contends that this is often the case with the three emphases of his title. Often, churches are either evangelical, that is scripture or Word-centered, or sacramental, emphasizing baptism and the Lord’s table, or pentecostal, focusing on the empowering work of the Holy Spirit in worship, witness, and growth in Christ-likeness. Smith asks, and then asserts, why shouldn’t the church be all three?

Smith begins his discussion with John 15:4, exploring what it means to abide in Christ as Christ abides in us, and how this is fulfilled in the grace of the Word written which witnesses to the Word Incarnate, in water, bread and cup that includes and nourishes us in Christ, and the Holy Spirit through whom Christ indwells us. He then traces the outworking of all this in Luke and Acts. He goes on to explore in the work of John Calvin and John Wesley, how the grace of God comes to us in all three of these ways. He then focuses a chapter on each of these “means of grace,” both elaborating how each has been expressed distinctively in the life of the church, and how they function in tandem with the other two.

  • The evangelical principle is rooted in the truth that God speaks in creation, in his Son, through the apostles and prophets, through their message inscripturated, and through those who proclaim the word in witness and instruction. Word and sacrament complement each other as those who hear and believe are incorporated into the church through baptism, and those who are taught of Christ are then nourished on Him at table. Likewise, the Spirit illumines our reading, our study, preaching and hearing of scripture, so that the Word becomes alive, convicts, and warms our hearts.
  • The sacramental principle reflect the material, enfleshed nature of creation, the Incarnate Son, and the visible body of the church. Visible symbols of water, wine, and bread are Christ-ordained gestures that speak of our inclusion in and ongoing fellowship (communion) with Christ. They visually demonstrate the message of the gospel but also have no significance apart from the words of institution. Likewise, these acts are not our acts but are “in the Spirit” and depend on the Spirit’s work to accomplish in us what they signify.
  • The pentecost principle reflects the immediacy of our experience of God through the Spirit, where the realities of scripture and sacrament are experienced. Smith talks about the two “sendings” of scripture and advocates that we need to experience both the redemptive work of Christ and the indwelling and empowering work of the Spirit through whom the fruits of Christ-likeness, as well as power for witness are fulfilled.

While I fully affirm Smith’s argument, I hope readers will not be put off by the three key words of the title. “Evangelical,” “sacramental,” and “pentecostal” all have negative connotations, that reflect abuses and failures of the church, but are not inherent in the principles these words represent. I think few would object to the idea that people are called to Christ and conformed to his image through the ministry of the Word, that they are included and nourished in Christ through baptism and the table, and that they are empowered for growth and mission through the Spirit. Smith puts it this way in his conclusion as he describes the new Christian:

“This new Christian would very much be a person of the Scriptures–knowing how to study, read, and pray the Scriptures and how to participate in a community that is formed by the preaching of the Word.

The new Christian would recognize the vital place of the Lord’s Supper, within Christian community, as an essential means by which the Christian meets God, walks with God, grows in faith, and lives in Christian community.

And, of course, the new Christian would know what it means to live in the Spirit, walk in the Spirit, be guided by the Spirit, and bear the fruit of the Spirit.

In other words, the Christian would be evangelical, sacramental, and pentecostal. And the evidence of such would be that they live with a deep and resilient joy, the fruit of a life lived in dynamic union with the ascended Christ.”

Would we want any less, or other for new (or all) Christians? We do well, I think, to weigh the argument Gordon Smith makes, and consider where, in each of our churches, we may more fully lay hold of all Christ has for us. And it just may be that in so doing, we may more closely approximate the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” reality we profess in our creeds.

Review: The Lord is Good

The Lord is Good

The Lord is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter (Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture), Christopher R. J. Holmes. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Explores what we mean when we say God is good, contending that God is essentially good, that this is why the Psalms focus so much on the goodness of God, and how Thomas Aquinas may prove quite helpful in our reading of Psalms and understanding of God.

You are good and do good;
    teach me your statutes.

-Psalm 119:68, ESV

This verse serves as the kernal or core of the argument of this book. The author’s contention is that God is goodness, and that this attribute, among all the others, is pre-eminent in the Psalms. Futhermore, because God is essentially good, his acts are simply an extension of his being, particularly all that God has done in creation. Because God is good, we exist. Furthermore, while there are some qualities that are particular to persons of the Trinity, goodness is common to the persons of the Triune God as one undivided essence. Consequently, particularly as creatures fallen away from God’s original goodness and restored through Christ, we cry out “teach me your statutes” that we might understand how to live into the goodness of God.

Holmes begins this argument with a discussion of the simplicity of God–that God is his attributes. These qualities do not exist apart from God but because God is these qualities. However Holmes argues for a particular understanding that goes back to Thomas Aquinas, rather than Karl Barth, whose theology serves as a reference point for much contemporary theology. His approach that is compatibilist rather than dialectic, where God is known by what God does. Holmes would argue for a much more seamless connection between who God is, what God does, and who we are and are becoming (if I understand this distinction correctly).

In subsequent chapters, Holmes explores how saying “you are good” is to describe a “pure act of being that is God.” He argues for the unity of God’s essence as good as prior to the Trinity. For God to “do good” is a reflection of the God’s being as pure act. God’s goodness is generative and results in a good creation.

The chapter on evil is striking as Holmes make the argument that evil is not a “something” but a “nothing,” a corruption of good. We recognize our need for help, leading to our cry to “teach me your statutes,” that mirror the goodness of their source. He explores how the incarnation of the Son uniquely communicates the goodness of God to us. He then concludes with an exploration of how the goodness of God leads to our perfection.

It is frustrating to try to summarize such a rich work in a few paragraphs. This is a work to be read slowly and savored. Sometimes a single sentence would stop me dead in my tracks, moving me to reflection and then to praise. One example was this: “God loves us by willing good to us, so much so that he conserves and perfects us in the good he is.” Another, from his chapter on creation: “Creation is radically contingent and has no other reason for being than God’s great goodness.” The effect was not simply intellectual illumination, but a response of turning to praise for yet another facet of God’s infinite goodness.

The challenge of this work, is that there is so many sentences of this character, really one after the other, in this work. It is rare that I have encountered writing of such precision, depth and elegance. It brings to mind the summer I spent reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion for its combination of intellectual rigor and devotional warmth. Like Calvin, Holmes is a pastor-theologian and brings to his readers both the carefulness of a scholar and the passion to lead us to more deeply love the good and beautiful God. Unlike so many books that are “chop steak” theology, this is filet mignon, to be eaten in small slices savoring each bite, each chew, for the rich and juicy fare that it is.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: Political Church

Political Church

Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule, Jonathan Leeman. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: Explores the nature of the church, arguing that it is a political institution that serves as an embassy of the kingdom of God, with implications for both its internal life and its engagement with the nations and governments of the world.

It seems that the relationship of church and state, which we often frame as spiritual versus political, and organic versus institutional, is a perennial discussion. In this work, Jonathan Leeman does a fine-grained analysis of both the biblical material concerning covenant-redemptive history and studies of the new institutionalism and turns much of the traditional schools of thought on their heads, arguing that both church and state are political and institutional, that our separations of spiritual and political realms don’t wash, and that our liberal idea of religious freedom ends in the destruction of religious freedom. He argues that both church and state function under the rule of God, albeit under different covenants and functioning in different “ages.” He contends that there is no neutral public square but that it is a battleground of the gods and that the state, ordained by God, either acting in accord with God or self-justifying.

Intrigued? I found myself growing more and more intrigued as I followed his carefully reasoned argument to its conclusion and thesis about the nature of the church. Leeman writes in his Introduction:

“Yet the primary claim of this book is that the local church is just such a political assembly. Indeed, the church is a kind of embassy, only it represents a kingdom of even greater political consequence to the nations and their governors. And this embassy represents a kingdom not from across geographic space but from across eschatological time.

“In other words, this book is concerned with the biblical and theological question of what constitutes a local church. The answer, it will argue, is that Jesus grants Christians the authority to establish local churches as visible embassies of his end-time rule through the “keys of the kingdom” described in the Gospel of Matthew. By virtue of both the keys and a traditional Protestant conception of justification by faith alone, the local church exists as a political assembly that publicly represents King Jesus, displays the justice and righteousness of the triune God, and pronounces Jesus’ claim upon the nations and their governments.”

Leeman begins by calling into question our conceptions of politics and institutions arguing for a broader conception of politics that includes the church, and that an institutional understanding of the church’s life is warranted in scripture. A political institution is “a community of people united by a common governing authority,” and he applies this both to church and state.

His next four chapters explore a politics of creation, fall, the new covenant, and the kingdom. He argues that the state operates under the Noahic covenant and has delegated authority to maintain the social order in the present age while refraining from enforcing belief, or impinging upon religious liberty, rooting religious liberty in an absolute standard, rather than in the conflicted conscience of liberal democracy. The church, foreshadowed by Israel, operates under the new covenant as ambassadors of the coming age, ordering its own belief and practice through the “power of the keys” while announcing the coming rule of Christ and its character to the nations.

A particularly striking conclusion is that it is the local church that is the focus of this work, and the only meaningful place, in Leeman’s argument, that functions as a kingdom embassy. Furthermore, he argues that the “power of the keys,” that is, the power both to admit people into membership and instruct them in truth, and to remove those who, by their lives, repudiate Christ’s rule, resides not in a single person or in a hierarchical structure, but in the congregation as a whole. This certainly is consistent with a “priesthood of all believers” theology, but I am troubled with what seems an inevitable consequence of his conclusion, the highly Balkanized kingdom of schismatic Protestantism. Are local congregations the only institutional manifestation of the kingdom?

His development of the idea of church as institution also bears on his discussion of justification and a difference with N.T. Wright. He would contend that covenant inclusion is not the definition of justification which he would maintain is being “declared righteous, but rather the institutional context of justification. This is one example of the careful analysis one will find in this work, in contrast with what Leeman believes is often fuzzy thinking. One also sees this in his critique of “advancing the kingdom” through social transformation without conversion. For Leeman, this begins with defining terms carefully, and distinguishing from notions that accrue more to liberal, Western ideologies than biblical theology.

This is a short review of a very long book. It is not possible here to “show all the work” in Leeman’s argument. His premises about politics and institutions and his covenant theology are key to that argument. It is particularly helpful in its conclusion that the church’s witness is a political act, in the ways it defines what both church and state do under a sovereign God. His discussion of the politics of forgiveness versus self-justification was another highlight for me in bringing to bear the distinctiveness of the Christian message as it bears on both church and public life.

In a time where political engagement tends consist of knee-jerk reactions to hot-button issues, slogans and soundbites, and efforts to return America to some kind of mythical Christian age, Leeman challenges us to the hard thinking about what our proper role is in our churches, and a framework for how Christians involved with the state might act. Whether you agree with all of his conclusions, the process he uses to reach them will challenge your own thinking and assumptions.

Interview: Matthew Levering, Part Two

Levering-003-ART

Matthew Levering holds the James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake. He has authored or co-authored over twenty books, including the recently published Dying and the Virtues, reviewed on this blog. I had the privilege of sitting down with him for a conversation while at a conference on the Mundelein Seminary campus. We discussed his personal journey to faith, his decision to enter the Catholic church, his scholarship, his latest work, and his thoughts on the work of a theologian and the state of theology. It was a rich and long conversation. Yesterday’s post included his thoughts about his scholarship and his book, Dying and the Virtues. Today, he shares his take on the work of a theologian and the state of the theological enterprise. This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Bob on Books: Much of your work consists of teaching people who are being formed for the priesthood or other roles within the church. Why do you think theology is so important in that task?

Matthew Levering: Well as far as I’m concerned the answer is this. The life of the mind springs forth from the heart. There is a cry that comes out from people to know the truth about God and about reality. So there’s a deep desire. The problem is the intellectuals, as it were, in every culture, and certainly in our culture. You often find if you read the New York Review of Books or other intelligent things, that the intellectuals don’t seem to find Christianity very credible or attractive. I’m writing for people who are going to become Christian teachers, who at least have some interest in Christian teaching of some kind, whether it’s becoming pastors, priests, or lay leaders in the community. I’m writing for teachers, essentially. It’s a little like Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics. The idea is that you teach the teachers. From the deep questions that arise very passionately from within, I go and seek out other teachers. I read their work and I put their work into my books and essentially hand on that way.

I’m trying to show that there’s a wonderful Christian conversation about these questions. I’m inviting young people, who are starting out with me, beginners like myself, into this conversation which is so much fun, which is so rich, really so glorious. It’s really so much more fun and beautiful and true than you might get if you just read the works of popular intellectuals. To be in Christ is such a glorious thing and the truth of it is simply stunning and rich and wonderful. But it is something that involves an intellectual labor, a labor of mind. We’re being taught by teachers and then sharing what teachers have taught us. I want to be part of that conversation in Christ with fellow Christians.

Bob on Books: I work in a ministry that tries to connect that conversation with some of the wider intellectual conversations that go on in the academy. What have been your experiences of connecting the theological conversation to the wider conversations going on about the nature of human life and human flourishing and all the things that are explored in what may be called the secular academy?

Matthew Levering: Here’s kind of the secret to the whole thing. Honestly, my experience of being a theologian has been an experience first of all my own ignorance. I’ve felt often times a strong sense that I don’t really know how to even begin an answer to a question someone will ask me. That will be an inspiration to write a book. By writing a book, you are essentially learning from a bunch of other teachers and then sharing their wisdom.

The secret, the key thing, the unfortunate thing I’ve found that theology, as a Christian discipline–and I want to include myself very much in this–theology is in tatters. Now I’m not saying this of the seminary where I work now, which is a very wonderful place! I’m not saying theology is in tatters here. I’m essentially saying that theology as a discipline, as a whole, is a discipline that is at war with itself. The war that I would describe is a war over whether God has truly spoken. It is essentially the war that has been going on for a while between classical, liberal versions of Christianity where what’s really happening is we’re gesturing toward the ineffable. Different eras try to build authentic community and liberative praxis from human resources and gesture toward the ineffable, the mystery. That would be what I call classical, liberal Christianity. That’s sort of at war with a more counter-cultural Christianity rooted in a commitment to divine revelation–a sense of God pouring out his Word, and becoming incarnate, and God’s Word dying for us.

If you want to know what I’m talking about, a great book to start with is by a scholar named Garry Wills. He has a book called Why Priests? which is an amazing example of classical liberal Christianity. He’s a very learned man. By no means am I trying to impugn him. In the book, he feels a little defensive because he doesn’t want his Christian commitment challenged. If he’s reading this, I’m not trying to impugn Garry Wills! I’m just saying that when I read the book, there are strong resonances of my own knowledge of what I would call classical, liberal Christianity.

That’s the situation right now. Among theologians around the world, the guild of intellectuals, there’s a strong questioning of whether we can defend God truly speaking, or whether in fact it has been some second temple Jews gesturing to this, or whether it is some post-exilic competing priestly clans, or some kind of Greek influence on church leaders trying to take power in fourth century Roman empire. And so different forms of gesturing, however authentic they might be, their gestures, their language, it’s all very historically conditioned. So we now have our own gestures and language in which we can use Jesus as a liberative model, a model of love. You can see the benefit of that kind of approach to Christian theology because it makes Christianity more easily defensible. To people who challenge Christianity, they say “We don’t believe that either but we’re just gesturing, we’re building authentic community and gesturing, using Jesus as a liberative model, whatever happens to be in the zeitgeist. Morally, you can just adopt that and say, “That’s what we want too.” Jesus is a model of that, he is a Liberator.

What you lose, though, is the Savior from sin and death. You lose the communion with the Holy Trinity. You lose the actual sanctification of the communion with our divine Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who are inviting us into their communion here and now. You lose that [experience of] actually being transformed and that power of God’s Word and that challenge–that real challenge of holiness and that challenge that confronts us as sinners who are broken; and that challenge that confronts us with real mercy built upon the cross where God has come to a broken creation that refuses to love, and God has loved for that creation at the very place where we have refused to love, which of course is our dying. We can’t accept dying so we turn our backs on God, but God has come right into that context and loved us and saved us in that very place of death — praise be to God, praise be to Jesus!.

Theology, in my view, is under great strain. I recently completed a manuscript called Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? It’s not a popular apologetics. It’s written for scholars. It’s a work that hopefully could be read by others, but the main point is that unless you can get deep into the nitty-gritty, they’ll say “You’re just on the surface here.” The work of theology understood as responding to divine revelation is a very difficult labor. You have to listen to a lot of voices to make sure that you are not making claims that are too strong. You have to be very careful in listening to and hearing as many voices as you can, as many voices of other scholars and other thinkers. Within that, there is a strong defense that can come forth of the reality that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Theology, then, in my experience is a fragmented discipline. The answer to your question is that I focus my attention on speaking to theologians and attempting to strengthen theologians. I seek to strengthen the discipline. I’m including strengthening myself and my beloved fellow theologians and especially young theologians in training and therefore also pastors and priests–to strengthen them to know that the fullness of divine revelation and the full life of the critical mind can go together. That’s the key point that I’ve been trying to say.

Bob on Books: I speak often about my own work with grad students as connecting the love of God and the love of learning.

Matthew Levering: Yes, beautiful. Remember, when I’m talking about the love of learning, I’m talking about the critical kind where you ask difficult questions that can seem corrosive. I think all those questions have to be asked, to be gotten to the bottom of. We need to hear the voices of the many teachers who can teach us if we are willing to ask those deep questions. The point is that we don’t want to underestimate the discipline of theology. There are so many wonderful resources, even though I think at the current moment in some circles there is something of a crisis of confidence, and therefore the discipline itself needs a certain strengthening. I haven’t devoted myself to speaking outside of the discipline. I haven’t done that but would love to do it though!

Bob on Books: I might figure out a way to take you up on that!

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Books by Matthew Levering reviewed at Bob on Books:

Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation (review)

Engaging the Doctrine of Creation (review)

Dying and the Virtues (review)